There is no debate that each one of us will eventually cease to physically exist in this world. Whether or not we accept that we are part of nature, as in all things in nature, all biological processes which make us alive, will ultimately stop, causing a physical death. If we’re fortunate, we’ll get to experience our bodies slowly shutting down, from least to most essential bodily functions, after we’ve had a plethora of enriching experiences in this reality. But since death doesn’t discriminate, we don’t choose when we die, rather we choose how we die, because I believe it comes as a consequence of our choices.

There has been too much death in my life in the last few years (mostly tragic and premature) and with my mom walking a thin line between physical life and physical nonexistence, I have been reevaluating what death actually is, wondering what happens to us once our mission in this physicality finally comes to an end, and how it affects further functioning of those left behind. My perceptions have changed vastly over the last few years, but throughout caregiving for my mom, not only have I developed a deeper understanding and appreciation for the physical life, but also, I have made peace with the transition process out of it.

SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE RULED MY PERCEPTIONS OF THE WORLD

In college I was extremely immersed in science. I was on the pre-med track (imagine my parents’ disappointment that I never became a doctor. Oh well) and majored in psychology with emphasis in neuroscience. Scientific evidence ruled my perceptions of the world and shaped my beliefs into agnosticism, rejecting my Catholic upbringing entirely. I had a really hard time establishing my position in the dualist-monist debate (you know, the mind-body connection). Having taken multiple neuroscience courses, it seemed natural to believe that every single thought we generate and carry inside of our brains is a mere creation and conduction of electrochemical signals through a carbon network that makes us up.

IT JUST MAY BE THAT THERE IS SOMETHING MORE TO US THAN THE COLLECTION OF ATOMIC PARTICLES

If that were the case, how could we possibly possess a soul? The concept of something as supernatural and intangible is really difficult to grasp and science has not been able to prove a spiritual dimension of life (nor has it been able to disprove it). Yes, there have been instances of people climbing the “stairway to Heaven,” people who have seen the “Kingdom,” including the “almighty God,” mainly through near-death-experiences (NDE), but how do we recognize that the imagery wasn’t born out of a limited oxygen supply to the brain, essentially giving rise to hallucinating experiences? It just may be that there is something more to us than the collection of atomic particles and because energy cannot be created nor destroyed, scientifically speaking, we continue to exist after we perish, just in a less orderly fashion (know your laws of thermodynamics).

RELIGION HAS ALLOWED PEOPLE TO ANSWER QUESTIONS

There has not been a culture in human history which has not practiced some form of religion (I am lumping spirituality with religion because there is not a religion which doesn’t share some common spiritual beliefs). Religion – as in personal or institutionalized sets of beliefs in God or the supernatural – has allowed people to answer questions pertaining to the origin and purpose of life, while also providing a moral code of ethics and a hopeful outlook for continuation of existence after the biological death. 

SHEER COMPASSION AND LOVE FOR SELF, OTHERS, AND THE PRESENT MOMENT SERVES AS THE GUIDING LIGHT FOR OUR BEING

I can’t yet explain our origin [beyond the Big Bang, of course] because I haven’t yet reached that level of understanding, though I think I’m on my way. Purpose is much easier to discuss and digest simply because everyone defines their own purpose in life based on self-selected motivation factors and inner desires. Some people don’t realize the true meaning of their life until on their death bed, and some live with no aim until their last breath. If you speak with enough dying people, read enough NDE’s, or consume enough Yogi tea affirmations, you will, too, soon learn the common theme of sheer compassion and love for self, others, and the present moment that serves as the guiding light for our being. But since life isn’t necessarily filled with good experiences, we need to learn and appreciate the dichotomy that it presents. Yin and yang. Pain and love. Darkness and light. Up and down. Without realizing this duality, you will not have a profound comprehension of what’s been served to you. 

CODE OF ETHICS IS A MORAL COMPASS

Code of ethics is a moral compass, based on an external system designating what is the right thing to do and an internal system influencing our beliefs and actions. Religion has contributed greatly to the dissemination of ethics and while I haven’t read the Christian Bible, I’ve learned that Jesus only listed six of the ten commandments in the New Testament, excluding those pertaining to one’s relationship with God, which I particularly appreciate due to the sustained extremism of Catholicism. Suddenly:

  • You shall not murder
  • You shall not commit adultery
  • You shall not steal
  • You shall not bear false witness
  • You shall not defraud
  • Honor your father and mother

seem like common sense universal principles and maybe instead of converting the world to one organized religion or another, we can teach people ethics, morals, and basic respect for self and another human being or animal (or generally Mother Nature). 

AFTERLIFE IS PROPORTIONAL TO THE QUALITY OF PHYSICAL LIFE

Afterlife in religion is an interesting conception with its outcome proportional to the quality of physical life and ability to abide by the aforementioned code of ethics. Buddhists believe in the constant life and death cycle, where the deceased takes on another body in the next life. Christianity, generally, assesses the success of following of those moral principles, which results in one going to Heaven or Hell. Catholic Christians believe in Purgatory, a place where purification of sins happens before someone who was destined for Heaven may be in God’s presence (to me, Purgatory always resembled the Fourth Floor in the Pawnee City Hall. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, get a life and watch Parks and Rec). Hindus uphold reincarnation into beings aligned with karma to be lived out for the previous life. Some Jewish believe in reincarnation, but some believe in heaven-like paradise, the world to come. Islam relies on Judgment Day, where the deceased souls are judged against their physical life actions and go to either Heaven of Hell. Spiritualists believe in continuation of the consciousness and its evolution in the realm of the spirit world. 

WE ARE UNABLE TO FACE DEATH WITHOUT FEAR

Unless you are an Atheist who believes that we simply perish and cease to exist in any other form, you must uphold some belief in an afterlife. Truthfully, the only reason it matters is that in the Western culture, we generally don’t think about dying because we are unable to face death without fear. And it’s not even the fear of physical detachment from someone. It’s not the fear of an inability to hold someone in your arms one more time. It’s not the fear of an inability to look into their eyes and read their emotions. It’s not the fear of an inability to hear their voice on the other end of the phone.

WE FOCUS ON EGO-CENTRIC GRIEF

For those dying, it could be a serious case of FOMO (fear of missing out) on events in their loved ones’ lives, such as marriage, children, other milestones, or holidays. For those left behind, fear manifests a little differently. Since the beginning of time, we have been conditioned to enter survival mode, the fight-or-flight response, which allowed us to evolve into the human beings we are today. As we have moved away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle because we’ve invented agriculture and learned to build shelter, we have moved up the hierarchy of needs where we now assign more significance to emotional and social ties. The fear associated with a loss of someone dear is attributed to our dependence on that someone, where we think that a part of us dies with the other person and we are no longer whole, no longer able to function independently, so instead of entering a joyful state that our loved one is in whatever paradise you choose to believe, we focus on ego-centric grief. 

DEATH REALLY IS JUST A PHASE CHANGE, NOT THE END OF A RELATIONSHIP

We need to recognize that death is a natural occurrence and a common denominator. We came into this world upon birth and somehow, we also need to go out. I am optimistic that whatever comes after this physical life is significantly more beautiful and richer than anything imaginable that we can experience here, and I say that as I lead a happy, fulfilling life, despite my mom’s serious condition. Death really is just a phase change, not the end of a relationship. With different phases, there are different vibrations where connections can be made. Think about an ice cube, for example. It’s just water in frozen form with its hydrogen and oxygen atoms condensed in low temperature. As temperature rises, that same ice cube can become a small puddle, with more separation between the H2O molecules, or it can become vapor, with the same molecules even more spaced out. Molecules in each one of the phases vibrate with different kinetics, but none of that changes the fact that it’s still water. We experience the phases differently, as we should experience the souls of our loved ones. Unfortunately, they are no longer able to be in our perception of physicality, but we have the power to channel their vibrational existence through meditation or prayers (are you vibing with me?).  

Because I know that I will be able to connect with her on a different level, I am no longer afraid of my mom leaving her physical body. Neither am I afraid of the same fate. In fact, call me crazy, but I am genuinely excited and curious to learn what comes next. Mind you, that doesn’t mean that I want to end my life here, as I am thirsty for more meaningful experiences, deeper connections with others, and I am driven to find more beauty in its purest form. So, here’s to the here and now in all that it is. 

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

One thought on “Rethinking death

  1. Your ability to put all of that into words, despite long, couldn’t have been any shorter. Thanks for baring your soul for the benefit of others.

    Other than the parks and rec part that I’ll have to read more of, this should be read by anyone struggling with the fear of death and whatever after life they seek.

    Like

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